Qaddafi claims Al Qaeda could overrun Libya. Could it?
While most experts say Qaddafi is grossly exaggerating the influence of Al Qaeda, new questions are being raised about its true scope as Washington debates arming the opposition.
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Today, no one knows how many Libyan veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are taking up the fight against Qaddafi. And while Islamists are reported to be among the most active on the fluctuating frontline, they are a small minority among the mosaic of fighters who earlier this week made huge territorial gains, backed by US and French-led allied airstrikes, only to lose the ground in panicked retreat Tuesday.Skip to next paragraph
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The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) in early 2007 publicly supported the insurgency in Iraq, calling on all “Muslim peoples” to wage jihad there. The LIFG declared in November 2007 that it had joined Al Qaeda.
The documents captured in 2007 in Sinjar, Iraq, give details of 595 foreign fighters in Iraq who crossed from Syria and listed a nationality, according to a late 2007 report by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point, which first published the Sinjar documents. Most of the fighters (41 percent) were from Saudi Arabia. Libya was second, accounting for 18.8 percent.
But when tallied on a per capita basis, the documents – known as the Sinjar Records – show that Libya accounted for virtually twice the number of insurgents as came from Saudi Arabia. And of the half of Libyans who listed their intended “work” in Iraq, more than 85 percent – the highest of any nation – said they wanted to be suicide bombers, according to the documents.
“Both Derna and Benghazi have long been associated with Islamic militancy in Libya, in particular for an uprising by Islamist organizations in the mid-1990s,” notes the CTC report. “The Libyan uprisings became extraordinarily violent,” it reads. “Qaddafi used helicopter gunships in Benghazi, cut telephone, electricity, and water supplies to Derna and famously claimed that the militants ‘deserve to die without trial, like dogs.’ ”
In recent years, Qaddafi has largely made peace with Libya’s homegrown Islamist groups, and released a number from prison after they denounced violence and any affiliation with Al Qaeda.
In a dialogue overseen by Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam, some 200 LIFG members were freed, including many top figures who issued recantations in 2009 and foreswore violence, according to a mid-March report by the US Congressional Research Service. A further 110 members were released at the beginning of the uprising in February.
The specter of Iraq
Despite that apparent reconciliation, Libyan officials are warning that the popular uprising against Qaddafi’s nearly 42-year rule is, in fact, the latest jihadist front.
“Today Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has raised its voice and the level of its threats,” government spokesman Musa Ibrahim said in the past week, referring to the Al Qaeda affiliate in North Africa.